Doctor Who festive specials linked to lower death rates

Study highlights the positive impact of doctors working over the festive period - may prompt broadcasters to air new Doctor Who episodes each year at Christmas

A new Doctor Who episode shown during the festive period, especially on Christmas Day, is associated with lower death rates in the subsequent year across the UK, finds a new study.

The new paper published in the Christmas edition of the BMJ highlights the positive effect doctors can have when working during the festive period and may prompt the BBC and Disney+ to broadcast new episodes of Doctor Who every festive period, ideally on Christmas Day.

Sixty years ago, the BBC televised the first episode of Doctor Who, following a character called the Doctor, who travels through space and time in the TARDIS fighting villains and intervening to save lives. The show became a cultural phenomenon, and today millions of viewers still follow it worldwide. In the UK, many doctors work over the festive period, but the impact of this on population health is unclear.Because Doctor Who has been broadcast for 60 years, it provides a natural experiment to investigate the impact that one doctor could have when working over the festive period.

Richard Riley, Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, examined the association between new Doctor Who episodes aired from 24 December to 1 January - a potential proxy for a single doctor working during that period - and the subsequent year’s age standardised death rates from the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

Only new televised episodes from 1963 were considered. Televised spin-off series, books, comics, and audio stories were not included. Between 1963 and 2022 a new Doctor Who episode was broadcast during 31 festive periods, including 14 episodes shown on Christmas Day. Thirteen of the 14 Christmas Day episodes were consecutive from 2005 to 2017.

In time series analyses, an association was found between broadcasts during the festive period and subsequent lower annual death rates. Episodes shown on Christmas Day were associated with about six fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in England and Wales and four fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in the UK.

The reduction was even higher when Doctor Who was consistently shown over the festive periods from 2005 to 2019, mainly on Christmas Day, with an average seven fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in England and Wales and six fewer deaths per 10,000 person years in the UK.

Given the study findings, we should be even more grateful to health professionals working this festive season

Dr Richard Riley

Prof Richard Riley said:

"This paper has two hearts. The first is about medical doctors, who work tirelessly to save lives and make others better, including over Christmas. The second is about the BBC TV series Doctor Who, which millions enjoy worldwide. Given the study findings, we should be even more grateful to health professionals working this festive season, and to the BBC and Disney+ for broadcasting Doctor Who on Christmas Day."

Encouraging health seeking behaviour

Riley points out that these findings do not show causality and relate to one unique doctor, so may not apply to all medical doctors in the human race. However, the analysis took account of population differences over time and he suggests that watching a doctor who is caring for people, "could encourage health seeking behaviour."

These findings reinforce why healthcare provision should not be taken for granted, writes Riley.

He believes that decision makers at the BBC and Disney+ (the international broadcaster of new episodes) should reach enlightenment from the study’s findings owing to a possible health benefit of watching Doctor Who. In particular, BBC and Disney+ have the opportunity to potentially reduce mortality rates worldwide if they show new Doctor Who episodes during the festive period, he concludes.
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  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 8,000 international students from over 150 countries.

    The University of Birmingham is a founding member of Birmingham Health Partners (BHP), a strategic alliance which transcends organisational boundaries to rapidly translate healthcare research findings into new diagnostics, drugs and devices for patients. Birmingham Health Partners is a strategic alliance between seven organisations who collaborate to bring healthcare innovations through to clinical application:
    • University of Birmingham
    • University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust
    • Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
    • Aston University
    • The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
    • Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust
    • West Midlands Academic Health Science Network
    • Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust

  • Full Citation: Effect of a doctor working during the festive period on population health: natural experiment using sixty years of Doctor Who episodes (the TARDIS study) doi: 10.1136/ bmj-2023-077143
    Editorial: Festive period episodes of Doctor Who and population mortality doi: 10.1136/ bmj.p2833
    Journal: The BMJ

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